Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych defended himself Monday from allegations that he embezzled state funds to upgrade his lavish presidential estate, which included a petting zoo with ostriches. Speaking to Western media for the first time since he was forced to leave office in February 2014 in the face of pro-democracy protests, Yanukovych said he did not purchase the ostriches and denied allegations that he ordered security forces to use lethal force against the demonstrators.
Pro-democracy protestors who forced Yanukovych from office raided his presidential compound in February 2014 and discovered displays of opulent wealth, including vintage cars, a movie theater and the ostriches, the Mirror reported. Yanukovych denied allegations that he embezzled millions in state money to pay for the expensive estate and said he did not personally own the majority of items found in the compound. Moreover, he said the ostriches “just happened to be there,” the BBC reported.
“What’s wrong with supporting them?” Yanukovych said. “That I supported the ostriches? What’s wrong with that?”
Acting on Ukraine’s behest, Interpol announced in January that Yanukovych was wanted on embezzlement charges, Reuters reported. Yanukovych, who was long accused of having close ties to the Kremlin, is currently living in Russia.
The pro-democracy “Euromaidan” protests began in early 2014, after Yanukovych backed out of a plan to enhance Ukraine’s ties with the European Union in favor of a closer relationship with Russia. More than 100 people died in subsequent clashes between Yanukovych’s security forces and protesters. Yanukovych denied in the interview that he gave orders for deadly force against protestors but said security personnel operated within their rights.
"I did not give any orders [to use firearms], that was not my authority. … I was against any use of force, let alone the use of firearms, I was against bloodshed,” Yanukovych said. "But the members of the security forces fulfilled their duties according to existing laws. They had the right to use weapons.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine to remove Yanukovych to Russia shortly after he stepped down from office. In March 2014, Russia annexed the formerly Ukrainian territory of Crimea and declared that the local population welcomed Russian rule after a coup to overthrow Yanukovych. Russia has repeatedly been accused of supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 6,400 people since early last year.